"Southerners, the Color Line, and Sex," The Chronicle of Higher Education, 28 June 2002

From the issue dated June 28, 2002
by Nell Irvin Painter

Writings by black Southerners in the late 19th and early 20th centuries focus far less obsessively on sexuality than do the works of their white contemporaries, because whites were less able than blacks to face up to the consequences of unsanctioned sexual desire. The telling difference has to do with secrecy, for a lot of white people were keeping secrets from themselves in ways black people simply could not. Because people of mixed race were classified as Negroes, African-Americans lived with the literal consequences of patriarchy and racism.

The children of rape or other forms of sex across the color line became black Southerners' own children, parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts. Harriet Jacobs, for instance, the North Carolinian author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), hesitated before exposing her intimate history but ultimately took it into print. For the great majority of white people, however, interracial sex remained a strange kind of secret: a secret as big as the elephant in the living room. ... Considering the potency of secrets, I would not be surprised if 21st-century historians discovered that black women, having been the most obscured people in Southern history, hold the keys to that history.

-- Nell Irvin Painter, professor of American history at Princeton University, in Southern History Across the Color Line, published by University of North Carolina Press


Reproduced from The Chronicle of Higher Education, 28 June 2002. Copyright Nell Irvin Painter.

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